Of Gaitonde's love for the sea
A new exhibition on Vasudeo S Gaitonde brings works from two galleries, and inaccessible works from TIFR, to display the volumes that he spoke with his canvases
Looking at a Vasudeo S Gaitonde work is the equivalent of staring out at sea. It's a one-sided conversation, in which you share everything on your mind, and the sea swallows it whole. "I believe his favourite thing was to sit out on a bench at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute and stare at the sea," says Kamini Sawhney, curator at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF), housed in CSMVS, which is presenting an exhibition of his works from August 2 till December 25. "A lot of his '60s works give a sense of the sea, the horizon, the rocks in the foreground. Gaitonde was, in a sense, Laxman Shreshtha's mentor. Laxman and him used to sit [on the bench] for hours and just stare, not talk. The folklore is that once he turned to Laxman and said, 'You know why I like you so much? Because you know the meaning, the value of silence."
Gaitonde (1924-2001), Gai to his familiars, was an eclectic, electric man. In 2015, one of his untitled works sold for Rs 29.3cr at a Christie's auction, making him India's most expensive artist. But, to reduce the value of his works to an invoice is like putting a price tag to the Arabian Sea. "Gaitonde is so talked about," says Sawhney. "But the tragedy is, in today's world, it's in a monetary sense because the value of his paintings is so high." The exhibition, The Silent Observer, brings together three iconic Gaitonde collections in the city. JNAF, as collected by Jehangir Nicholson, has 14 works; TIFR, thanks to Dr Homi Bhabha's vision, is going to present five works; and Pundole's, whose collection was started by Kali Pundole and continued by his son Dadiba, will show 24 works. "Mumbai just hasn't had a chance to [appreciate them]," says Sawhney. "After how many years are we having a Gaitonde show? The Guggenheim [in New York] had a show [in 2014], but nobody had done a show of Gaitonde in the city. Rather than talk about the commercial value of the works, we want people to enjoy them." Dadiba Pundole echoes, "Art has to be seen. Keeping it in storage doesn't serve any purpose. The TIFR is also not an easy institution to walk into. So, this exhibition brings out [his works] into the public domain."
Gaitonde, by all accounts, wasn't an easy man to like, but an easy man to admire. Pundole, who first met him in 1981, says, "[The impression] I'd been given was that he was someone very caustic, aloof, didn't make much conversation, was happy in his own company, someone you stayed away from. And, he was looked up to by just about every artist I knew at the time. So, something told you this man was special. But, he treated me as an equal, which surprised me a lot. My father taught me early in life to keep my mouth shut, and I think that helped in this relationship."
Born and raised between Nagpur and Goa, Gaitonde studied at the JJ School of Art in 1948, joined the in-vogue Progressive Artists' Group, went to NY on the Rockefeller Fellowship in 1964, and returned to Bombay to set up a balcony studio at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute, for the daily rent of one rupee. He was a man of few words, with a lot to say. "I remember [MF] Husain telling me, when they were both at Bhulabhai, they would go to Bombelli's, an Italian cafe close by," says Pundole. "Sitting with him, sipping coffee and no communication. That was something I experienced all through my career. There were long periods—by long, it could be half an hour, 40 minutes, if not longer—with not a word being said. For him, that was communication. I wasn't that evolved. It would make me uncomfortable. But I realised, 'Don't try to break the ice just to force it. Let it be.' And that worked."
In the 1970s, owing to high rents, Gaitonde moved to Delhi. While he had an eye for fine tailoring and a refined ear for classical music, he wasn't a man of the house. "His house was a mess, never dusted, never cleaned," says Pundole. He also never married, but had a partner and companion in Mamta Saran, a researcher. He hated for his works to be called abstracts, and preferred the term 'non-objective'. "He had a method of painting, where he applied a flat ground on a painting, and then stood it up on his easel and contemplated on that colour, till he felt like coming down to the act of painting," says Pundole. "But that contemplation could be days, weeks, months. That same red canvas would be on his easel for years." In the same breath, Pundole says, "I can't explain his work verbally. I think I understand it at a superficial level. This is the kind of art you just experience, because he never vocalised what he was painting."
A 1974 oil on canvas from Jehangir Nicholson's collection that will be at the exhibition. Pic Courtesy /JNAF
So, we turn to Sawhney, who says, "A lot of people think that abstraction came to India from the West. But there's so much abstraction within communities and religions like Judaism, Islam and Buddhism: calligraphic symbols and hieroglyphics. As Gaitonde discovered Zen Buddhism and whatnot, he started exploring this aspect as well. He hated being asked, 'What does this mean?' He said, 'My process is the result. You are to look at it and bring to it what you feel. I don't have the answers. I paint what I paint.'"
As a lifelong collector, Pundole says, "He's someone I believed in right from the start. One day very early in my career, he asked me, 'Dadiba, do you know why I paint?' There was a pause, and I fortunately didn't open my mouth. He replied, 'Because your father buys my work.' I thought it was a very crass statement for an artist like him to make. In the back of my mind, it bothered me for a long, long time. Till many years later, I was coaxing him to start painting again, and he turned around and said, 'What makes you think I've stopped? I paint every day. I make paintings in my head.' And that told me, that he just needed money to keep body and soul together. Painting for him was an intellectual exercise, not necessarily applying [paint] to canvas. That told me how great that man was."
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